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All About Meters

0610
 2019


Carla Bates when she was a meter reader, at left, and today, above. She became a Bluebonnet employee in 1999 and recalled a few encounters with wasps, bees and spiders, including one black widow spider that gave her a nasty bite. Now she works to design the location of power lines, poles, equipment and meters for members receiving new service.

By Mary Ann Roser and Melissa Segrest

Do you remember the friendly person dressed in a tan shirt who walked up your drive to your house every month? He or she peered at your electric meter, decoding its dials, numbers and circling arrows. The person quickly typed numbers into a curious black device and then left, only to return the next month.

They were Bluebonnet Electric Cooperative’s meter readers, the human point of contact for thousands of co-op members every month. They worked from 1985 until 2007, when the cooperative fully converted to automated electric meters that use power lines to transmit power consumption information directly to Bluebonnet’s system.

After the conversion, many meter readers stayed on with Bluebonnet. Several dozen still work at the co-op, holding various jobs, from line workers to crew supervisors, control room operators to line construction planners.

“That was the cool thing about it,” said Kyle Boer, Bluebonnet’s superintendent of engineering services. “All of our meter readers were exceptionally loyal, and we didn’t want to lay anybody off.”

This year, Bluebonnet is celebrating its 80th anniversary. With auspicious timing, in April the cooperative topped the 100,000 meter mark, which establishes it as one of the largest electric co-ops in the nation. Today’s electric meters are state of the art, and new versions are replacing older meters. In 2018, 4,000 of them were installed, and this year, crews plan to replace another 3,000 older meters.

BACK IN THE DAY
Before meter readers, Bluebonnet members read their own electric meters and wrote down how much electricity they used on cards that were sent to the cooperative.

“It was an honor system,” said James Jordan, who runs the meter distribution shop at the cooperative’s Giddings service center. He has worked at Bluebonnet for 23 years. If a member’s consumption numbers looked a little suspicious, an employee would stop by and check the meter.

In the early 1970s, Bluebonnet had far fewer meters across its 3,800-square-mile service area and almost all of those were residential, said Donnie Graham of Lockhart, a former supervisor of meter readers who retired in 2005. At that time, the co-op staff was so small that after 5 p.m. and on weekends, Graham said he would just transfer calls about power outages  to his home phone.

By the end of the meter-reading era, the cooperative had dozens of meter readers, each trying to read at least 100 meters a day. Although meter readers had radios to communicate with supervisors, they relied on paper maps in large bound volumes, looking for dots that pinpointed meter locations.

Reaching a meter wasn’t just a stroll up a driveway. Sometimes, a meter reader had to drive a mile, go through multiple locked gates and make a long trek on foot just to reach a single meter. They carried heavy rings of 50 or more keys to unlock gates on members’ property to access meters.

Philip Grimm recalled how rain and mud could make roads impassable for their two-wheel drive trucks. Many meter readers carried long lengths of chain for the inevitable stuck-in-a-rut moment. Driving through oil fields and muddy roads with only AM radio and no air conditioning was a challenge. Grimm gets to be pickier about Bluebonnet’s vehicles today: He is the cooperative’s fleet supervisor.

“We were very rough on trucks,” said Carla Bates, a former meter reader still working with Bluebonnet.

Bates first read meters for a contractor, then as a Bluebonnet employee starting in 1999. Today she helps plot the locations of poles, lines, equipment and meters for new homes of new cooperative members. That job is important, but “when we were the meter readers, we were the most important people at Bluebonnet,” she said with a grin.  

THE HUMAN TOUCH
Some Bluebonnet members loved to see the meter readers. Others made it clear they didn’t want them on their property.

“Almost all of our members – 99.9 percent – were, and are, really great people,” said Boer, who has worked more than three decades.

Doug Schlemmer was a Bluebonnet meter reader for years. Today he is a crew supervisor out of the Giddings service center. He remembers receiving holiday cookies from members and having long conversations with members who rarely had visitors. One older man always offered a Dr Pepper. Another man refused to pay his monthly bill until someone came to his house, when he would gladly pay a late fee for the chance to chat.

It was no surprise that many Bluebonnet members, especially the seniors,  were sad to learn meter readers would no
Sometimes meter readers noticed problems: a gate that had been cut, a house that had been broken into, a big water leak. They fixed the occasional flat tire for a member or helped an older couple move furniture.

But the job was not all cookies and compliments. Some ornery members locked out the meter readers or refused to provide gate lock combinations. No one recalls being hurt by an annoyed member, despite the occasional threat and drawn gun.

A few members went to great lengths attempting to tamper with their meters to try and avoid paying bills – which was, and still is, illegal.

LIONS, TIGERS AND DOGS
Animals and insects posed the biggest problems for meter readers. Most agreed their scariest encounters were with dogs. Even with dog treats, distraction tactics, sprays, “bad dog” warnings, requests for help from dog owners and the occasional stick as a defensive weapon, there were a few dog bites but mostly near misses.

Marti Wright, now superintendent of contractor operations, kept a large bag of dog treats in her truck and always had some handy in her pocket. She said that if a dog was chasing her, one of her strategies was to toss a few treats as a distraction to allow her to jump back into the truck.

Bees, wasps and spiders caused problems, too. Bates once reached over a fence and was bitten by a black widow spider. Occasionally, meter readers were chased by surly geese and turkeys, too.

And yes, there really was a lion, a tiger and a panther, according to Schlemmer. They lived on property near Birch Creek. Schlemmer will never forget one big cat that tried to sneak up on him. He heard the unmistakable hiss of a cougar hot on his heels and barely escaped an attack, even though the big cat was chained.

On that day, the promise of high-tech automated meters never seemed so good.

VIEW AN ELECTRIC METER TIMELINE

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